U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is urging British parents to send their children to school next month when schools reopen in full, as the country’s top medical experts have warned that children are more likely to be harmed by keeping them closed.
“It’s absolutely vital that pupils get back into school in September,” Johnson said. “It’s vital for their education, its vital for their welfare, it’s vital for their physical and indeed their mental welfare.”
“So let’s make sure that all kids, all pupils get back to school at the beginning of September,” he added.
Johnson echoed advice from British medical experts that children were more likely to be harmed by keeping schools closed than reopening, and he said there was a “moral duty” to reopen.
“I think parents are genuinely still a bit worried about their children contracting coronavirus,” he said. “All I can say is the risks are very, very, very small that they’ll even get it but then the risks that they’ll suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very, very small indeed.”
Britain is one of a number of European countries making the decision to reopen schools in full, unlike the “virtual” or “hybrid” learning styles being pushed in many parts of the U.S. Johnson promised that there would be lots of precautions for returning pupils including hand-washing “and all the other disciplines you need to prevent the spread of the virus.”
Johnson was responding to fears from parents concerned that sending their children to school could put them and relatives at risk. His case was bolstered by a joint statement by the chief medical officers’ of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales that pointed to the “exceptionally low risk” of children dying of the disease.
“Very few, if any, children or teenagers will come to long-term harm from COVID-19 due solely to attending school,’’ the medical officers said. ”This has to be set against a certainty of long-term harm to many children and young people from not attending school.’’
Professor Chris Whitty, who is the U.K. and English chief medical officer, told the BBC that there was “overwhelmingly clear evidence that the chances of children dying from COVID are incredibly small” — while warning that the “chances of many children being damaged by not going to school are incredibly clear.”
Whitty said that while there is an increased risk of children passing the virus to adults if people are mixing households, but “it looks as if, and the evidence here is weaker so I want to be clear about, it looks as if there is a lot less transmission from children to adults than from adults to adults.”
The BBC also reported that 10 Downing Street has said it has “no plans” to follow a proposal in Scotland that teenage school children wear face masks at school.
Johnson’s push for reopening has been met with resistance from some teachers unions. The Sun reported that The Education Solidarity Network, a left-wing faction in the National Education Union, is planning street protests on Friday across Britain with a list of safety demands such as free PPE and weekly COVID tests.
It also said it wants to be able to close classrooms if local infection rates hit its chosen level.
Britain implemented strict lockdown measures after the virus hit the country, but Johnson was still criticized for not implementing them quickly enough. It has a death toll of more than 41,000.
Johnson has previously called for a “significant return to normality” by Christmas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.